As the world’s attention captured by the events unfolding in Crimea, many readers may have missed an interesting story regarding the Italian region of Veneto.
In March, more than 89 per cent of its residents who voted in an unofficial referendum supported separation from the Italian government in Rome. More than two million people took part in the online vote, which was backed by the region’s independence parties.
Veneto’s current president, Luca Zaia, has noted that the Italian constitution doesn’t prevent possible secession. Zaia is a member of the Liga Veneta (Venetian League), which, like the Lega Nord (Northern League) federation of parties, supports regional autonomy.
The push for Veneto’s independence reflects the general mood in northern Italy: an ambivalence towards the Italian state and a resentment of the south. The latter is represented as poor, wasteful and corrupt, as well as an unwelcome magnet for illegal immigration.
Veneto is one of the 20 regions that make up Italy, covering some 18,000 square kilometres with a population of nearly five million. It has a tradition of independence. Its main city, Venice, became an independent maritime republic in the Middle Ages and went on to become one of the richest and most strategically significant centres of the Mediterranean. It remains a prosperous and distinctive area, with many locals speaking Venetian alongside Italian.
From the 1970s, calls for more political autonomy and cultural and linguistic recognition gained momentum. The Liga Veneta was established in 1980 to promote both Venetian nationalism and economic subsidiarity (an organising principle of decentralisation, whereby decisions are made by the smallest or least centralised authority possible).
The Liga Veneta acted as a catalyst for other regional parties advocating separatism and, in 1991, was a founding member of the Lega Nord. In 2010, it won 35 per cent of the popular vote in regional elections. It isn’t alone. The Regional Council of Veneto has passed resolutions affirming the self-determination of the Venetian people and calling for a referendum on its future.
Referendums are important milestones in the histories of countries, regions and even overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. In Veneto, as with the forthcoming Scottish referendum, economic and financial matters loom large. Many Venetians believe that they contribute more to the well-being of Italy than they receive in the form of public-service investment. Some estimates suggest that there is a net transfer of €20billion per year.
In addition to the parties advocating regional autonomy, there have been other warnings regarding Venetian separatism. In May 1997, separatists launched a protest in St Mark’s Square and Bell Tower in Venice. After a stand-off involving the Italian police, the ringleaders were eventually arrested, but many Venetian political figures supported the action.
Intriguingly, it was reported in February 2011 that the act that enabled the Italian Kingdom to incorporate regions including Veneto was cancelled by a decree that came into force in December 2010. The government argued that the annexation was superseded by the Italian constitution, but it encouraged separatists in Veneto to claim that it was no longer an integral part of Italy.
And in the wake of the recent referendum, Italian police arrested 24 Venetian separatists, including one of the organisers of the referendum, two people involved in the 1997 St Mark’s Square takeover, a founder of the Liga Veneta and organisers of last December’s so-called Pitchfork Protests, aimed at ousting Italy’s entire political class. The suspects were said to be members of a group called the Alliance, which unites radical separatists from Lombardy, Sardinia and Veneto.
According to police, the suspects had built an armoured vehicle that they were planning to deploy in St Mark’s Square, mirroring the actions of the 1997 secessionists. They were also said to have been planning to ‘liberate’ the piazza using weapons sourced from the Albanian mafia and to set up a new independent government.
From the struggles of the Red Brigades to create a revolutionary state in the 1970s to the activities of organised crime in Sicily and other parts of the Italian mainland, the territorial and political integrity of Italy continues to attract political and public attention. The situation in Veneto will be grist to the mill.
This story was published in the June 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine